What Houseplant Should I Get: A Chicago flowchart

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You love plants, you always talk about how you’d like a plant, so let’s get you a houseplant. In addition to our humorous yet fact-ridden flowchart (a handy primer for any houseplant hopeful in the midwest), we’ll answer a few common questions for first time plant parents in collaboration with expert plant man Eric Johnson, Senior Sales Associate at Gethsemane Garden Center. Eric is a true gem in the plant world and was generous enough to share some of his insight with us for a first—or seven—time plant owner (Johnson currently has TWENTY TWO living plants at home, and has even allegedly killed some in the past—c’mon Eric, we know you’re just trying to make us feel better!)

COMMON PLANT Q&A: 

1. WHY DID MY PLANT DIE? WHY?!?!
Don’t be so dramatic. It’s a tough world out there. But seriously, we may have spent a half-day in mourning for our succulent (you were supposed to be easy!) Here are some of the top reasons your flora flopped:

“Square one when you’re picking out a house plant—it’s all about light,” says Johnson. “To a plant that’s the most important thing; that’s their food.”

a) Your light source was poor. The cat meows. The tummy growls. The plant? Undetectable to the human eye, it withers in the glow of Last Week Tonight. When you’re a plant, it’s light for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s how they create their own food supply via photosynthesis.

“Sun and light are different things,” explains Johnson. Some plants need direct sun (that is sitting in an east, west or south facing window so they can be exposed to the sun), whereas some are okay with indirect sunlight (they need light, but it doesn’t need to be blaring at them directly.) Some are ok with—or prefer—bright filtered light, so close to a window, but with some element that offers a bit of shade or light distribution.

b) You overwatered it. Or underwatered it!  People who forget to water their plants often confess it as if it makes them unfit to be mothers or even humans. But you know why most of those allegedly breezy succulents die? Overwatering! These plants were built for a dry desert environment and will literally drown on too much H20. Don’t just “forget” to water your cacti, intentionally disregard them when you walk into a room. Say “plant, begone!” if you must; whatever you do, do not give into to social pressures to Always Be Watering.

“Water your plants when they want to be watered,” says Johnson. “Not just on a schedule. If you don’t get thirsty on a schedule like that, your plants don’t either.”

Our friends at We Love Aloe tell us that once a week is a good general rule for watering cacti, but water even less in the winter, as the plant goes into a dormant state where it uses even less water/energy than sunnier months. “Conditions like summer growing, winter resting, sunny, cloudy—they all play a role,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 22 plants in my living room right now, it’d be great if I could water em all that the same time, but I can’t.”

In general, make sure you test soil below the surface. “Some plants want to be watered when it’s dry on top,” says Johnson. “Some want to be watered when it dries down an inch or a half inch.” It’s important to do your research on your varietal to know what it prefers.

c) You didn’t prune dead/dying growths. Remember when I said it was a tough world out there? Your plant only has so much energy and it doesn’t want it used up by dead weight. Pinch off or prune back blossoms, leaves, and shoots that look less than exciting to conserve resources for the stronger growths on the plant.

d) You have a pest problem. A little diluted soap and water in a spray bottle does wonders for getting rid of pests.

2.WHERE SHOULD I GET MY PLANT?
Is it just us or is there something eerie about rows and rows of little plants inside of a HOME DEPOT. A home depot with its faraway windows and gallons of industrial products. There is a reason—besides the vaguely dystopian aftertaste it leaves in our mouths—not to purchase your sprouts in HD (or any other big box store that is not a gardening store). Johnson tells us that Gethsemane is super picky about the growers they do business with, as some growers don’t let plants develop enough root systems before releasing them into consumer’s hands.

“With a larger plant, if you can wiggle it in the pot, then it doesn’t have enough root systems and it won’t be able to feed itself,” Johnson says.

A plant with premature root systems can be coddled back to optimum health, but it will be more at risk for under or over watering, Johnson explains. [At Gethsemane] “the people that work in the greenhouse have a lot of training,” he says. Johnson should know, as he trains many of them. “We tell them what questions to ask customers, how many windows, what direction, and what their schedule is like. We can advise them and recommend care.” You really get a personalized experience at a garden specialty store, and the price increase in plants may be reaped in stronger, healthier plants that are more likely to survive for the long haul.

There is also the matter of pesticides. Until Spring 2015, Neonicotinoids, a known colony destroyer, were used on plants found at Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart. To quote blogger Lavende & Lemonade, this was turning consumers into “unwitting butterfly, bird and bee killers.” The EPA banned neonicotinoids soon after, but then again, who knows how long that will be around either. EPA or no EPA, people disconnected from plants and communities are likely to always be sneaking in the next best pesticide to guard against garden pests and outsell their competitor. But I digress. To purchase plants that help bee colonies thrive, don’t get them from places who place temporary showmanship over sustainability. Chicagoist put together a great list of garden stores and nurseries.

3. WHY DO I WANT A PLANT AGAIN?
Why do people want these green things? If ‘green things’ make you shudder, perhaps you are a member of the undead. Greenery is so attractive to the (living) human because it is generously synonymous with life; green things flourish near water, and humans need water to live and make soup. Indoor plants filter air and absorb hazardous compounds, clearing your home of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). This is well documented in a 1989 NASA Report entitled “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement”. Plants also have a notable effect on mood, lowering blood pressure, raising productivity and a sense of well being. Plants also increase positive aesthetics. When everything is dead during the winter, it’s nice to have a little splash of green waiting for you when you get home. Refer to our flowchart for just a smidgen of plant possibilities. Although cats and dogs are unlikely to munch on a plant because it’s just not in their wheelhouse, it’s always a good idea to check plants for toxicity before bringing one around curious critters.